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30.06.2010 | Volodymyr Yavorsky

No Democracy without Information

   

Democracy is not only about honest elections, but also the rule of law and open information. It is precisely these three values that form the pillars of modern democracy. Those feeling disillusioned with democracy would do well to understand that the last two of these values have not been achieved in Ukraine.

Free circulation and exchange of information in different spheres of life fulfil many functions in a democratic society.

Without objective information you can’t make a correct informed choice at the elections, and the media cannot effectively use their controlling function over the authorities.

Without information it’s impossible to assess the work of the current government, deputies or simply evaluate many public processes. Free circulation of information is a prerequisite of democracy and development of society which takes decisions on the basis of information received.

Most bad decisions can be explained by the lack of accurate and full information. It is for this reason that totalitarian regimes as a first priority close off access to information or use various means to distort it.

It is now therefore that adoption is vital of the law “On access to public information” which is ready to be passed in its second reading in parliament.

A large number of public conflicts in Ukraine arise from lack of information or when information comes too late. At the same time a lot of negative processes continue because the public are unaware of them.

To this day information about decisions taken by the authorities remains classified and concealed behind various concocted stamps restricting access. Most decisions stipulating pay or other material provisions for officials, the use of many forms of State property, privatisation, requisition of property remain unknown to the public.

These documents on closed access include dozens which violate human rights and fundamental freedoms.

For a democratic government it is advantageous to make information open, removing and forestalling public conflict. The Ukrainian authorities instead always try to conceal all “inconvenient” decisions which could elicit a huge number of questions under stamps like “For official information only”, or even without any stamps at all,

The following are just a few examples.

The majority of general plans of cities remain classified which generates dozens of conflict situation. Very exact maps of the country are also classified. Ukraine and Belarus are the two countries in Europe that keep small-scale maps secret. As a result you can’t work in Ukraine without a reasonable quality GPS navigator. The official Nokia site has a warning that they cannot guarantee normal navigation since they are not provided with accurate maps. Total absurdity in the modern world! Many public conflicts over land development revolves around the simple issue of who actually owns the land. Why in 20 years of independence has a register of owners of land sites which could resolve hundreds of such conflicts not been created?  Why aren’t all decisions about handing over land sites not made public?

There is no register at all for many types of property which on the one hand fails to protect this property, generating possibilities for raider seizures and fraud, on the other means that it remains unknown who owns what.

In Kharkiv over the last month there has been conflict over construction work in the old city park and the felling of century-old trees. This was accompanied by serious mass protest, confrontations, detentions and other elements of conflict. At the core of the conflict was the lack of information.

The authorities have still not shown any permits for the construction work. It is of course possible that there are none, however then that is a direct road to the police.

The idea of the construction was not new, yet the public learned of it only when they began felling the trees and not at the planning stage. There was no public consultation.  Nobody has explained why it’s necessary and for what, and whether it’s necessary at all. Very vague explanations were given only after the work had begun. It was not entirely clear what exactly is supposed to be built and why there.

Clearly, if the public had learned about it earlier, their actions could have been less radical since it is much easier to stop construction at the very outset.

The following are some other examples showing how everything depends on access to full and accurate information.

It is open knowledge that certain food items contain harmful substances. The State Food Standards Committee carries out tests checking for such harmful elements. “Ukrainska Pravda” has been publishing these tests, which has not been very pleasant for some producers. Yet when the journalists began approaching producers, the latter refused to provide information. They said that they should be sent a registered letter with an information request, and then they would answer only after a month. So for an additional month people are forced to be “poisoned” because the information is not forthcoming.

The scandal is not abating over the killing of a student in the Shevchenkivsky District Police Station in Kyiv. They normally try to hush up such cases. This time they didn’t succeed.

Yet if you ask the police how many people have died in district police stations in the last year, they won’t tell you. They don’t have the information or it’s not made available. What is there to say when even relatives of people who’ve died in police custody are often not given the opportunity to read all the material of the investigation?

The Ministry of Internal Affairs circulates convenient figures which give little real idea of the real situation.

You can hear, for example, some virtual figures for the “solving of crimes” which say nothing. They are virtual in that they do not coincide with the number of convictions, i.e. the police report solving a case and the court says that the crime has not been solved, yet that is not put in the statistics.

In fact the crime is not solved, but the report looks good. Lack of openness by the law enforcement agencies restricts public discussion on the effectiveness of police activities and accordingly puts off to the future urgently needed reform of law enforcement bodies.

A lot of information is made secret according to Soviet standards which have long clashed with modern conditions of global information exchange.

The history of the last century is kept secret with thousands of archival documents, instead of being studied by researchers, lying in the archives of the Security Service or other bodies. Public discussion of other past is artificially hampered by the authorities.

You can give hundreds of other examples from entirely different spheres of life, the economy, culture, sport, science and others. Everywhere the main question will be where is accurate and swiftly obtained information.

The global information society has existed for many years, and it is our country that remains an island with its own internal and external gates. These gates not only restrict the development of our democracy but hamper the country’s general development, with it being out of the general world information flow.

It is for this reason that we need to reform the system of access to public information and the first step in this direction will be to pass the appropriate draft law which is completely ready for parliament’s adoption.

Volodymyr Yavorsky,, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

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